We were recently in Newfoundland on holiday, and we decided to make the grand trek up the Great Northern Peninsula to L’Anse aux Meadows. Here, at the end of the known world (well, it felt like it), where the road ends and the ocean begins, is a remarkable site: the only known Viking settlement in North America.
The tale behind the discovery of this site is almost as remarkable as the settlement itself. It began not with an artifact, but with a story. Much like Heinrich Schliemann, who believed the text of the Iliad was more than pure myth, the discovers of this amazing site found fact in the old Norse sagas. These tales, the Vinland Sagas, told of the voyages of Leif Erikson and his crew, who sailed west from Greenland in search of timber and wealth.
The Vinland Sagas are really two independent Icelandic texts dating from the early 13th century, with different accounts of Norse voyages to Vinland some 200 years before. After establishing colonies in Greenland, these explorers cast their eyes further west, where they discovered more untamed land. Furthest to the north was Helluland, across the Davis Strait from Greenland (possibly Baffin Island). Further south was Markland (generally considered to be Labrador), rich with the trees that Greenland so sorely lacked. And then, south of that and far more hospitable, was Vinland.
From The Saga of the Greenlanders
From Chapter 1
They sailed for another two days before sighting land once again. They asked Bjarni whether he now thought this to be Greenland. He said he thought this no more likely to be Greenland than the previous land — ‘since there are said to be very large glaciers in Greenland’.
They soon approached the land and saw that it was flat and wooded. The wind died and the crew members said they thought it advisable to put ashore, but Bjarni was against it. They claimed they needed both timber and water.
From Chapter 3
There was now much talk about voyages of discovery. Leif, the son of Erik the Red, of Brattahlid, went to Bjarne Herjulfson, and bought the ship of him, and engaged men for it, so that there were thirty-five men in all… Now prepared they their ship, and sailed out into the sea when they were ready, and then found that land first which Bjarne had found last. There sailed they to the land, and cast anchor, and put off boats, and went ashore, and saw there no grass. Great icebergs were over all up the country, but like a plain of flat stones was all from the sea to the mountains, and it appeared to them that this land had no good qualities. Then said Leif, “We have not done like Bjarne about this land, that we have not been upon it; now will I give the land a name, and call it Helluland.” Then went they on board, and after that sailed out to sea, and found another land; they sailed again to the land, and cast anchor, then put off boats and went on shore. This land was flat, and covered with wood, and white sands were far around where they went, and the shore was low. Then said Leif, “This land shall be named after its qualities, and called Markland (woodland.)” They then immediately returned to the ship. Now sailed they thence into the open sea, with a northeast wind, and were two days at sea before they saw land, and they sailed thither and came to an island which lay to the eastward of the land, and went up there, and looked round them in good weather, and observed that there was dew upon the grass; and it so happened that they touched the dew with their hands, and raised the fingers to the mouth, and they thought that they had never before tasted anything so sweet.
From Eirik the Red’s Saga
From Chapter 4
Leif set sail as soon as he was ready. He was tossed about a long time out at sea, and lighted upon lands of which before he had no expectation. There were fields of wild wheat, and the vine-tree in full growth. There were also the trees which were called maples; and they gathered of all this certain tokens; some trunks so large that they were used in house-building.
From Chapter 9
Karlsefni proceeded southwards along the land, with Snorri and Bjarni and the rest of the company. They journeyed a long while, and until they arrived at a river, which came down from the land and fell into a lake, and so on to the sea. There were large islands off the mouth of the river, and they could not come into the river except at high flood-tide. Karlsefni and his people sailed to the mouth of the river, and called the land Hop. There they found fields of wild wheat wherever there were low grounds; and the vine in all places were there was rough rising ground. Every rivulet there was full of fish. They made holes where the land and water joined and where the tide went highest; and when it ebbed they found halibut in the holes. There was great plenty of wild animals of every form in the wood.
But these are stories, legends, fiction, are they not? Researchers Helge Ingstad and Anne Stine Ingstad thought not. There were sufficient details in the sagas, references to plants and animals and geographic formations to lead the Ingstads to focus on the tip of the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland as the probable site of the settlement. They surveyed the territory and began asking around: Did anybody know of some unusual land formations in the area, something that probably wasn’t formed by Mother Nature.
In 1960 someone had something to tell them. George Decker, a resident of the small fishing village L’Anse aux Meadows led them to an area the locals called the “old Indian camp,” where children played among the low regular mounds, just a few inches high but still distinct. To an archeologist’s eye, these grass-covered shapes weren’t just mounds in the earth, but the remains of houses.
Archaeological excavations began the next year. From 1961 to 1968 they carried out seven excavations of the remains of eight buildings. The excavations showed that the houses were originally made of sod that rested on a frame, the same construction found in Iceland and Greenland at the time of the settlement, about 1000CE. Other evidence was collected as well. In the baking pit of one house they found an oil lamp and a spindle wheel; in another a fragment of a bone needle for knitting, and in another a bronze pin with a ring-shaped head that the Norse used to pin their coats. There was also slag from smelting and forging iron, as well as the iron nails and rivets used in boat building. This was ample evidence to assert that this had been a Scandinavian settlement.
As a writer, this real-life story really resonated. The sagas are literature, to be sure, but history as well. The fanciful stories held more than a thread of truth, and open-eyed scholars chose to approach them as real accounts, leading to a wonderful discovery. Although, as historical fiction authors, we do not seek to record historical events for their own ends, this is perhaps a lesson that we can bring the past to life. Perhaps when we do our research and make it sing in our stories, we can shine a little light on a little piece of the past that will let the explorers and archeologists forge their own paths and find even more things that we had never imagined.
And so here is to the sagas, here is to the Vikings, and here is to the Ingstads and everyone who searched for truth in literature. Raise a cup of mead with me, and perhaps a glass of good sweet Vinland wine.
The excerpts from the sagas were taken from the following translations:
The Saga of the Greenlanders, from The Norse Discovery of America, Arthur Middleton Reeves, 1906
Eirik the Red’s Saga, Rev. John Sephton, 1880